Monday, July 7, 2014

Western States 100 Miles – 15:56:49 & M8!



That moment had finally come. With a minute to go 400 nervous and excited runners stood in the morning darkness under the starting gantry at Squaw Valley. Race originator Gordy Ainsleigh took the microphone and began his pre-race pep talk. He got a bit off track and someone yelled out ’20 seconds Gordy!’ just as he was reaching his crescendo moment. His Henry V quote was drowned out as the crowd countdown started. The starter lifted his shotgun. That moment had finally started.

Western States is a big, no gigantic, deal. To get into this prestigious and historic race was a dream come true. Call me a nostalgic and old skool trail runner, but this race just appeals to me on so many levels. Firstly, I love the history, the mystique and the characters of this race. Secondly, I love the course; a true A – B course over challenging, variable terrain following a significant route. I love the range of environmental conditions encountered and I love the race because it is just so strategic. Lastly, and personally, this race does suit my strengths. It’s a very runnable race and I will always favour these types of courses.

My preparation was smooth and followed a well considered plan (as I’ve written about previously). I was healthy, happy, strong, fit and fast (enough). I even had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in the US prior training with previous WS finisher Beth Cardelli; acclimatising initially to the heat and gaining course familiarisation in Auburn and then in the last week making plenty of trips above 2500m to top up the altitude acclimatisation which had started in the Hypoxic Chamber at Valley Fitness. Lastly, the ultimate ‘cherry on top’ was following my ANZ mates over in Chamonix kicking arse at the SkyRunning World Champs, then Scotty Hawker at Laveredo. I was inspired and it filled me with so much confidence going into my race.

Start line nerves.
Photo: Tom Landon-Smith
My race plan was pretty simple; keep it very comfortable and minimise muscular damage until the ‘halfway’ point of the race at Foresthill at 100km. This marks the end of the major descents and torturous canyon climbs and from here it’s pretty open and fast running, but only if one has the legs to do it and can handle the conditions of the day.

3, 2, 1…Boom! The wait was over. Off we went climbing up from Squaw Valley to the Escarpment in the darkness. Before long the early morning light was stretching over Lake Tahoe. I reached the summit with the lead group, and hit the rolling downhill towards Lyons Ridge CP. I would have been in the top 5 and was happy with the pace. I settled behind Miguel Heras who looked relaxed and ready for a big day. Some of the WS veterans were commenting how lucky we were to have such a dry, snowless course. The trail was tricky though, loose granite stones made foot placing difficult at times.

After leaving the CP and running through now semi-dense pine forest I began to get the urge to go to the loo. In over 250 races and many many ultras, I have never had to go do a number two, perhaps it was the altitude but before I knew it I was clenching tight to avoid a full on blow out. I desperately looked around for a suitable forested area to ease my discomfort, but the pines were thinly spread and offer little cover at their base level. I decided to hold on until the next CP at Red Star and go there, whether they had port-a-loos or not, I was going!

Running up in the high country.
Photo Kym Wrinkle, iRunFar
And go I did! I think the toilet (a small lined bucket) was meant for the aid station volunteers but they were gracious enough to let me use it (but they may have regretted that later!) With that over, I felt released and began chasing down those that had passed me during my sojourn. I soon caught up to the always friendly Yoshikazu Hara and passed Ryan Sandes while he was relieving himself in the bushes next to the trail. Always the pro! I took off after Nick Clark and Ian Sharman who was walking most of the ups and just destroying the downs. I thought that he was a good guy to follow, he is just so consistently successful on this course.

Sometime when I was running behind Nick I kicked a rock or a root very hard and took a fall, taking some skin off my fingers and causing a lot of pain to a toe on my left foot. Soon came Duncan’s Canyon which is remarkably deceiving. I hadn’t been out on this section and while the descent was free flowing fun, I was surprised on how long the climb out of the canyon was. It was hard work, but I kept the slow grind going, gradually pulling in some time on Ian as he hiked the little steeper ups.

Reaching Robinson’s Flat, this was the first time I got to see my crew. I got there and took my second 500ml water flask as I had planned to do and downed a 250ml flask of Perpetuem which I was using alongside Hammer Gels as my fueling strategy. I also attached an icy bandanna. The trail from here is simply stunning, gently descending on beautiful single track around the side of a mountain and through fields of wildflowers. Hitting Millers Defeat the trail becomes very open and double width. It’s here too when I was introduced to the dust. Ann Trason, 14 time winner of Western States, has said that you inhale so much dust during the race that the race gets in your blood. It certainly was, especially when Alex Varner passed and was running in front of me, I couldn’t see the trail due to the dust cloud he was kicking up so decided that the best thing to do was run beside him. We introduced ourselves and I was very impressed that for someone running his first miler how he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the lead bunch early.

Running through the beautiful beginning stages.
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
Reaching the very aptly named Dusty Corners, the trail heads towards the next major canyon descent, Deadwood Canyon. Running towards the ominously named Last Chance aid station Ian again came into view. I was loving the regularity of the aid stations, this one was only 5km from the last. Beats the 20-25km distances I’m used to in Australia! Apart from being weighed, I pretty much ran through this CP to great encouragement from the entourage of Aussies that were volunteering there. I really got a big lift out of that and charged off to cheers of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’! Thanks so much John and Lara!

Half way down the descent Ian surprisingly came hurtling down behind me and told me he had a toilet break at Last Chance…quite a trend this toilet thing! Normal proceedings ensued as Ian passed by. But having Ian coming up from behind made me work the downhill harder than I would have usually done and by the bottom I was happy to see we had both caught Alex and also a runner I hadn’t seen since the start, David Laney. I enjoyed cooling off in the creek at the bottom and felt very determined to run the whole canyon climb as I had done in training a week prior.

I caught David who was powerhiking it and stuck to my guns to not overdo it. Slow, steady grind up the 36 switchbacks. Alex was run/walking and always within sight while Ian had powerhiked it really well and taken off. At Devil’s Thumb, so named for the unusual rock formation at the top, it is 2 canyons down and 2 to go and mentally I was right on top of my race. I felt it had gone pretty much to plan. The next canyon was going to be the big test.

Climbing up from El Dorado Ck. Ryan (behind) didn't stay there for
too much longer.
Photo: Tanner Johnson
I descended the El Dorado Ck canyon well, again on my own. It is a very long descent but never too steep in any section. The downhill was when I felt the pain on my toe the most. The incredibly friendly aid station at the bottom (perhaps the biggest hike in for any aid station volunteers, and no doubt the hottest location) were incredible, taking my water flasks and filling them as I was sponged down with icy water and taking some gels. It was very efficient. The climb up is tough, not as switchy as the last canyon, but deceptively long. About three-quarters of the way up Ryan Sandes came charging up and passed by, he was definitely putting in on this climb. He is a champion and he had the steely determined look in his eye to catch those in front. My plan was to remain patient until Foresthill and then give it all. It was a little early for me to go.

Putting on an ice cold singlet at
the Michigan Bluff CP
Photo: 川田友広
Reaching Michigan Bluff CP, Nadine had everything ready to go. I changed singlets into an icy cold one, changed my visor to a legionnaires style cap and took 2 new softflasks with icy cold water. I downed another Perpetuem and restocked my gels and Enduralytes. All done in under a minute, perfect. As I left the CP, Ryan was only a hundred or so metres down the road and I was desperate to attach back on. The next leg descends the last canyon, the smallest but the most exposed and now we were reaching the heat of the day. Volcano Canyon is very well named! It was beginning to get really hot but the new shirt, sponge downs, ice bandanna and new cap with the flappy bit out the back was working wonders. I was also spraying myself with the water from my softflask.
Running to a conservative plan, I got to Foresthill in 9th spot and feeling great (Miguel had dropped at Michigan Bluff). I had kept up a steady sustained effort rarely reaching threshold. I was now ready to unleash and reel in the carnage that I was sure would occur in front of me; surely the pace of the front runners couldn’t be sustained and they would fall victim to the conditions of the day or their own aching body.

And run quickly I did! With my Inov-8 team mate and pacer Scott Dunlap pushing me along, I ripped into the next major ‘Cal Street’ legs passing 3 runners, Mike Aish, Alex and Ian and got to the river crossing in 6th spot. After taking some food and water on board before the crossing, I lost 6th spot to Ian Sharman who ran through the checkpoint and got to the crossing first.

The river crossing was a little hairy. They had only decided less than an hour earlier to have the runners wade their way through the water instead of rafting them over. This decision is based on the depth of the river and apparently it was just low enough. When this decision is made, they then close the water gates upstream to decrease the flow. However when the leading pack got there, the current was still quite strong and we had to shimmy across the cable hand over hand. One slip there and we would have been taken downstream!

Entering the mightily refreshing American River.
Photo: Jason Thompson
The last 35km of the race were mostly on beautiful buttery single track and I was continuing to push on; even though brain fatigue was setting in and stomaching gels was becoming a challenge. My new pacer, Ben and I both set off after those in front and experience has told me that the last 20km in milers is where positions come the easiest if one has the legs. My legs felt strong; my quads were benefitting from the downhill conditioning I had put them through in the lead up, energy levels were still strong and my technique was still very sound. I had a potential top 5 and the rare ‘finish in daylight’ in front of me! Ben was very encouraging offering good advice to keep me composed, mentally positive and my technique in order. We flew to Auburn Lakes Trail along buttery single track, and then pushed harder to Brown's Bar where Hal Koerner was the Aid Station captain. He let me know that I was within a minute of Ian and looking strong. But as much as I pushed, those in front were up to the challenge!

Coming into the last 11km, the big efforts were beginning to show and I hit a small low patch coming into the HWY49 checkpoint on a tricky, technical bit of trail. It was probably a little bit of ego, up to now I hadn't walked a step of the course and I was determined to run the entirety. Unfortunately it pushed me over the edge and Alex Varner, with whom I had had a ding dong battle with all day passed by and I was in 8th spot. (Later Ben described this well as our own little 'Unbreakable' moment, for it was here where Roes passed Anton in that epic race). I walked and regrouped for about 800m and at the CP took on lots of sugar (thanks Alina!) and started to get life back into my eyes. Daniel Kroeger was my new pacer, and we were both hoping to catch Alex again and any other flailing runners. We had a strong last leg, down to No Hands Bridge and running up to Robie Point, but it wasn’t to be. Even though my Foresthill to finish split was one of the quickest on the day, the top 4 stayed incredibly strong and maintained some of the advantage they had built up over me in the initial race stages and Ryan, Ian and Alex closed the race brilliantly. Rarely does a miler pan out like this and its truly inspiring stuff really.

In the end, I crossed over on the athletics track at Placer High School in 8th place in 15:56:49. A sub 16h time totally exceeded all my expectations. I have joined a small group of runners to go under this benchmark and feel privileged to have been in the race that now has the new record for the most sub 16 finishers (and no, I didn't need my headlamp!)

That awesome feeling when a plan comes off!
Photo: Chris Jones
A top 10 finish means automatic entry for next year’s race. If life lets me take up the invitation, rest assured that the lessons learned in this year’s experience will be invaluable. Perhaps I will take a slightly more risk taking attitude with my early pace and push even harder on the downhills and flatter sections. But you can count on one thing, if I am standing at Squaw Valley in a year’s time, I won’t be there to fill the top 10, I’ll be cougar hunting.

One simply doesn’t take an entry into this race for granted. To give it anything but your best in training and the ultimate in race performance would be sacrilegious to the bib number worn. When the trail running gods give you an entry to 'States', you simply owe them your very best. I feel on the day, I gave them just that.

Things that worked well:
  • Hydration. Loved the new Inov-8 500ml soft flasks! They were efficient and quick to refill. When I knew I would have more water than I needed to drink on a leg I would use them to squirt my face and neck.
  • Fuelling. The strategy of a Hammer Gel every 40minutes and a 250ml strong mix of Perpetuem at the major aid stations kept me stable and strong all race. A great little app for my Suunto Ambit 2 reminded me via an alarm to do this which was very handy!
  • Electrolyte replenishment. A Hammer Enduralyte every 30 minutes, sometimes two in the heat of the day kept all the muscles firing solidly.
  • Cooling strategies. Replacing my singlet with an iced singlet at the crewed CPs was perfect. Sponging and wetting myself as much as possible at every opportunity (dunking myself in creeks, wetting my hat in horse troughs etc) kept my core body temperature down. The ice bandanna was perfect on my neck. Thanks to Marcus Warner for the tips!
  • Race strategy. It played out really well. I was conservative early without letting the leaders get too far in front. I pushed on from the 100k mark and couldn’t have pushed any harder.
Indebted to:
  • My awesome crew, Nadine for putting so much planning into not just the day but the entire trip over. Her crewing was perfect and it’s really a team effort. Couldn’t do this without you!
  • Scott Dunlap, Ben Zuehlsdorf and Daniel Kroeger for giving their day up to pace me.
  • Alina and Tom Landon-Smith. Thank you so much Alina for supporting Nadine on the day, your presence definitely alleviated Nadine’s anxiety about flying solo. Thanks Tom for the support too!
  • Beth and Brian Cardelli and Beth’s mum Joan for being awesome travel partners the whole trip and making sacrifices for Beth and I to reccie the course. 
  • Ultra Trail World Tour and Inov-8 for making it possible. This result will now consolidate my spot in the top bracket in the Ultra Trail World Tour.
Wore:
  • Inov-8 TrailRoc 255
  • Injinji 2.0 Mini-crew toesocks
  • 2XU Elite Compression Short
  • Inov-8 singlet
  • Inov-8 Race Peak 30 Cap
Used:
  • Inov-8 0.5 Softflasks
  • UltrAspire Quantum Belt
Sustained by:
  • Hammer Gels
  • Hammer Perpetuem
  • Hammer Enduralytes
The Mens and Womens Top 10
Photo: Joe McCladdie

4 comments:

  1. Awesome race, awesome write-up. Great stuff out there!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm all for sponsorship but there's nothing subtle about those singlets... just sayin'
    other than that... massive effort and congratulations on the great result.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Congrats Brendan, top 10 finish and sub 16 to boot. It's going to be your year mate.

    Hoping to run Western States someday.

    ReplyDelete
  4. When I lined up at the M7 I had no idea I was in the company of a living legend! Love the beard too, the Rob Krar of Australian ultra :-P
    Cheers

    ReplyDelete